Alex - The Boy Who Insisted on Facing North
By Mary Ann Harrington
I had the habit of referring to the kids in my class as my angels. Even in that altered realm, Alex seemed a bit more otherworldly. Thus, I referred to him as my “Archangel.” At other times “Wild Man” or “Roadrunner” seemed to suffice. When I first met Alex, he climbed on everything and seemed to prefer to walk on tables.
Unlike many of my students who were hyper-sensitive to sensory input, Alex appeared to be hypo-sensitive. He did not appear to feel his body enough. Each morning, he would run up and down the cafeteria, it appeared to me that he needed to do this to feel his body. Most people interpreted his incessant running as hyper-activity. I interpreted it as hypo-activity.
He was on medicine for hyperactivity, which never quite made sense to me. It appeared to me that his hyperactive movements were needed to feed his hypo-active system. Although medicine temporarily appeared to calm him down, it also appeared to exacerbate his movement disturbances. Often, if Alex improved in one area, he showed decreased function in another. For example, his fine motor movements would improve—he would be able to copy words and pictures—but at the same time he would get stuck executing gross motor patterns; sometimes he could not even put on his coat, or feed himself. I remember him getting stuck on the way to the serving line in the cafeteria or on his way to the bathroom. Usually a slight push would get him started again. It was reminiscent of the scenes in the movie “Awakenings.”
Alex often looked up at the sky as if he were seeing things that were invisible to the rest of us. He seemed totally entranced with whatever it was that caught his attention.
Alex appeared to be controlling himself from outside his body. When required to select correct responses from a field of choices, it was as if his spirit was controlling his body from above as his arms awkwardly reached out to select the correct response without even the quick peripheral sideways glance. He was invariably correct. It was amazing!
In the fall of 2001, right after 9-11, Alex was going through puberty and seemed to take a turn for the worse. His behavior, which was always intriguing, became astonishing and alarming. Alex had always been a compulsive eater. Now, he refused to take in any nutrition. He would bring a favored snack item to his lips and then push it away. Even more frightening, he refused to drink water. Throughout the day, he would run from the room find a position and face north. Often his arms would be at his sides with his palms outstretched similar to what you see in religious statues. At other times after finding his preferred spot he would assume Muslim prayer position on the floor, hands at sides and head bowed forward. Of course, he was always facing north.
Facing north became an obsession. If headed north, Alex walked forward. If headed south, he insisted on walking backward. When headed east or west, he walked sideways, so his eyes were always facing north. When we were on our daily walks through the woods, he adjusted his stance to always insure that he was facing north, turning from side to side as he twisted and turned on the meandering trails. I often thought about it, but I never did attach a compass to his head to see how close to north he was able to maintain.
Another amazing thing Alex did during this time was spontaneously jump up from a seated position, step on the narrow back of a typical classroom chair. As frightening as it was to witness, Alex seemed to know the exact fulcrum point and never once did I witness the chair even slightly tipping.
The situation was obviously out of control. His mother and I, fearful of him not taking in enough liquid amongst other things, had him admitted to the county mental health complex for evaluation. His medication was changed and his newly adopted odd behaviors began to slowly subside. Most importantly, he began to drink and eat again.
Alex eventually became very proficient at using PECS. The first time he really seemed to get it, was in February, the second year he was in my class. It finally clicked that if he gave me the picture of the candy heart, he would actually get a candy heart. Soon after that initial realization, he was selecting the correct pictures from a huge field of choices. At the time, I had all my walls covered with strips of Velcro with Mayer-Johnson pictures attached, and I had put them in categories. This way, I would always have the pictures handy for visual cuing. It helped the kids search and recognize categories.
One of my memories of Alex was the day he selected a picture of a stick of butter, a picture of a nut, and a picture of a quarter. I was totally confused, but the picture of the quarter made me think of the vending machine as I remembered that he had run into the teacher’s lounge earlier in the day. I took him to the vending machine to see if this combination of tickets made any sense. Sure enough, there was a package of "NutterButter" cookies.
Although Alex could now spontaneously use PECS and could copy printed sentences on his own and at the computer, he could not generate any typed or written communication on his own. He needed the visual provided by PECS and Speaking Dynamically Pro. Our last year together, he was finally able to initiate by drawing pictures He began to finally initiate by drawing some to designate desired snack items he wanted.
After I was no longer Alex’s teacher, I planned to visit his class. I decided to get him some favored treats to see if he would draw pictures to request them. The night before, as I was in the supermarket, I was thinking of him as I selected the items. I got him a few fish candies, a tiny pack of chocolate chip cookies, and a tiny pack of donuts along with his beloved butter cookies. The next day I visited his class, but I forgot about the treats and left them in the car. When I was about to leave his classroom, I told him I had some butter cookies for him in the car and would bring them in. I drew a picture of the butter cookie as I handed it to him. To my utter shock, he took the piece of paper, drew a circle and put marks in it to indicate the chocolate chip cookies. He then drew a donut and a triangle with a spine through it, which I assumed indicated the fish candy. It was if he had said, “Don’t forget the chocolate chip cookies, the donuts and the fish candy!”
How did he know what was in my car? Was it because I was thinking of him so intently while I was selecting the items the night before? Or was he capable of remote viewing? I don’t know! It is one more reason for his nickname. “Archangel”
Lessons I learned from Alex:
• Some children may possibly direct their bodies from outside themselves.
• Some children may see things that we cannot see.
• Some children can select correct responses without ever appearing to look at the material through their own eyes.
• Some children may be sensitive to directionality or magnetic fields.
• Some children may demonstrate an ability to balance way beyond the capability of typical children.
• Some children’s fine and gross motor capabilities fluctuate and change.
• Some children have extreme discipline when insisting on doing what they believe is best for self-organization.
• Some children develop strategies to make their bodies work.
• Some children may have developed ability for remote viewing.
• Some children are their own best doctors and therapists.
I have served as a teacher of individuals with autism for 18 years. What they have taught me was to be sure of nothing, and open myself to the extraordinary. My emphasis in my anecdotes of the children and my articles is the currently unexplainable phenomena I have encountered.
Mary Ann Harrington